When you read travelogues, travel blogs, look at photos, and generally hear about people’s recent trips, everything seems amazing. Nothing went wrong, everything worked out, nobody got injured, lost or found themselves in an awkward situation.
But it does happen, and with surprising frequency. I’ve been extremely lucky, never having to file a travel insurance claim, but that doesn’t mean that haven’t found myself in some trying situations. Although they’re not that fun at the time, they’re a story, something you will remember in minute detail and again what establishes your trip as something personal and unique from anyone else’s.
So here’s my top ten worst experiences when travelling. And no, they don’t just consist of me falling over ten times. (Yes, I have an uncanny ability to trip over my own feet, particularly when wearing brand-new jeans.)
10. Losing a prized possession, Germany
I am fortunate to not have lost many things whilst travelling, quite an achievement for someone who, at times, would pack and unpack the Beast six or seven times a week. I lost a singlet in Helsinki, a watch in Tokyo, a really good power adapter in Munich, and almost lost my phone charging in the middle of the night in Rome before a dorm-mate chased it down. And that’s about it. Until my heart almost stopped one day at Oktoberfest. My iPhone was missing. Immediately I began to fret. I had travel insurance, so replacing it wasn’t a problem, but it was a hassle anyway. Until I reached further into my bag. There it was, all along. But without its unique cover; a great rubber one designed to look like a cassette tape. I was just as shattered. Now who steals an iPhone cover but not the iPhone? Obviously someone who already has an iPhone and just wanted my awesome cover.
(It was so unique that I ended up finding an identical one at the Camden Markets weeks later.)
9. Missing a flight, Hong Kong
I’ve been pretty lucky with flights. I’ve caught plenty in the last few years, and have only missed the one connection, flying back to Melbourne after a couple of weeks in Europe two winters ago. A snowstorm delayed my flight from Dusseldorf, but my connection in Helsinki waited for all the other snow-affected flights, causing us to miss our connection in Hong Kong. People were moaning and groaning about all the hassle. Me? I was jumping up and down. I wanted a stopover in Hong Kong on the way back but found it too expensive. Now I was getting one anyway, for free. We were taken to our five-star hotel where everyone went to bed, except me. I befriended a group of Taiwanese women and joined their shuttle to a nearby outlet mall. Many packages, and a yum cha feast later, I boarded the plane again, as fresh as those who had slept.
8. Being trapped in Nanjing, China
Once Zoe and I arrived in Nanjing, we didn’t realise that we were going to struggle to get out again. Our three hour bus journey had turned into eleven hours; little did we know that we were amongst the last ones out of Shanghai before the highways were closed. Thankfully, Nanjing was a pleasant enough place and a good spot to learn how do deal with snow. We shopped, we ate, and paid a king’s ransom for a flight out when the airports opened again.
7. Getting ripped off, Vietnam
I’d only been blatantly ripped off once before visiting Vietnam; I was shortchanged the equivalent of thirty euro just after arriving in Budapest. But I’d heard plenty of horror stories about Vietnam, taxi drivers being at the top of the dodgies list. We had to wait until our last hours in the country to see how merciful they could be. Our short taxi ride from the War Museum to our hostel was only supposed to be about 5,000 dong; what we’d paid on the way there. “Meter,” we automatically said when we hopped in and he dutifully turned it on. Only problem was, the meter just kept going up and up, and he just kept going in circles around the Old Town. All of a sudden the meter was at 30,000 dong and we asked to get out. We offered him 10,000 dong, double what it was worth, and automatically he grabbed Paul’s bag and wouldn’t let go. Worried, I searched for some help and found a nearby cop, who looked my way and immediately walked in the opposite direction. Eventually I found some big burly Americans who were able to create a fuss, and we successfully walked away 10,000 dong down. It’s not an experience I’d like to repeat and it certainly dampened our time in Vietnam.
6. Getting hopelessly lost, Italy
My navigational skills aren’t fantastic. Actually, they are woeful. As a tour guide, this is not a skill you want lacking, so I have embraced the invention of Google Maps and inbuilt GPS tracking like nobody’s business. But back in 2007, there was no such thing as an iPhone and my way of getting a feeling for my surroundings included writing down a hostel’s directions and taking a photo of the map of the surrounding area at the station. Returning to my hostel in Milan one night, I was so confident that I knew where I was going that I strode off after a brief look, and ten minutes later I realised that I was hopelessly lost. I walked and I walked and I walked, chanting the Hail Mary as I plodded along. I passed cafés, car dealerships and grocers, all looking familiar as I’d passed them in my ‘Big Ben, kids’ kind of way, but I would silently hope they rang a bell due to being located on my hostel’s street. I eventually made it, but not after a couple of hours of wandering. Thank God for GPS these days or I’d be a goner.
5. Falling over, Scotland
I fall over a lot. A whole lot. It’s in the blood, really; where I come from it’s called a ‘Great Fall’ and I’ve had plenty of them throughout my life. Specifically, they’ve come to be known colloquially as ‘doing a Caitlyn’. Embarking on guides’ training, I was worried about potential falls. Standing up in front of a packed bus with nothing to hold on to except for a microphone? I freaked out even more when I spied the stairwell I was supposed to stand with my back towards. This was prime Great Fall territory. As it turns out, it didn’t even get to that point. Planting a tree on our first day, way out in the Scottish highlands, we all set off through a nondescript paddock. Thankfully, being the slowpoke I am (I have short legs!) I was at the rear of the pack so nobody saw my tumbling routine. One of the other guides who I’d been talking to when walking (multi-tasking, not a good idea) had carried on chatting as if I was still next to her. I picked myself up, dusted myself off and caught up. Funnily enough, it was my only fall for the whole season.
4. Having the worst food poisoning of my life, China
I’m a bit of a fearless eater when I travel. I’ll try just about everything, and only have a couple of little rules to avoid food poisoning; make sure it looks relatively clean and only eat seafood near a significant body of water. This has served me pretty well; only two small cases of food poisoning had resulted in four years, in Singapore and Switzerland of all places. That was, until I attempted hot pot twice in two nights when visiting Chengdu in China, home of the fieriest food in the world. My 24 hours of hell also included a two hour flight, one of the worst things to experience when wanting nothing more than to vomit out your guts until there’s nothing else left. Those moments of taking off and landing were excruciating; I wasn’t allowed to go to the toilet which worried me deeply.
3. Boarding the wrong carriage of a split train, Belgium
My longstanding issues with Belgium began in an unassuming way. I was meant to head to Hasselt, not far from the Dutch and German borders, for a day off sightseeing and a spot of outlet shopping at Maasmechelen Village. I set off from Bruges, setting my watch for 11.44am and opening a novel. I was mighty dumbfounded to discover that at 11.44, our train terminated at Liege. Liege, that sounded familiar, I thought. For a moment I thought Liege must be the French name for Hasselt. Then why was I calling it Hasselt? Probably because they were two separate cities, and I’d ended up on the opposite side of the country, in French-speaking Wallonia. Needless to say, I didn’t do any shopping that day.
2. Possibly being stung by some gigantic creature, Thailand
I am a water baby. I love swimming, playing, just being in the water, really. Paul is the opposite. He seems to be the only person in the world allergic to water, turning a shade of blotchy pink whenever he even looks at the beach. So, he’d already been back in the boat for a good fifteen minutes when I decided I’d had enough snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi on our boat tour. I grunted, groaned, and pulled my weight onto and then over the side of the boat. I crashed through, hair in my eyes and snot snaking down my cheeks, startling everyone inside.
Paul helped me up, fending off the giggles, only to later call me a ‘special needs child’ as he’d just finished watching ‘Summer Heights High’. What I hadn’t yet noticed was a massive rash all over my shoulders and chest – later diagnosed as pityriasis rosea – probably obtained by my overexcitement in seeing and therefore touching numerous exotic fish.
1. Checking myself into hospital, Italy
My ferry ride back to Italy from Greece was fairly uneventful, until I woke up, that is. A few nights before I had assumed that I had been bitten by a whole lot of mozzies due to a number of bites that had appeared on my arms, but it was not until the ferry that one had started to swell up and the bites all started looking not so mozzie-like. Of course, my mind was racing, and feeling a bit medical, I diagnosed myself with everything from chicken pox to poison ivy. What was I to do? I constantly asked myself, whilst practically ripping my arms off through scratching.
So I took myself down to the chemist when I arrived in Bari, where they swiftly directed me to the nearest hospital. Wonderful, I thought. The hospital was massive, probably the size of my university campus. I was so lost (and also carrying the Beast), crying by this stage and nothing was in English. Somehow I found the paediatric ward, told them my age (after a bit of confusion, I firstly informed them confidently that I was ‘novantuno’, ninety-one) and that I spoke hardly any Italian, and all of a sudden I had my own minder. They drove me to the other side of the hospital by ambulance, poked me, prodded me, and sent me off to ‘Dermatologica’ and then ‘Infectio Diseaseo’. Apparently the backs of my arms, legs and back were covered in ugly spots, some slightly smaller than the size of ice hockey pucks. With two prescriptions, directions to the station and a warning to take it easy, I was free. To this day, I still don’t know what got me.